Richard Lazarus's Theory of Stress Appraisal

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  • 0:02 Richard Lazarus
  • 2:30 Primary Appraisal
  • 4:34 Secondary Appraisal
  • 6:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

How can something make one person really, really stressed, and not bother someone else at all? In this lesson, we'll examine Richard Lazarus's appraisal theory of stress, including primary and secondary appraisals.

Richard Lazarus

You probably picture most psychologists as being calm and rational individuals, right? Well, not exactly. In fact, in the 1960s, there was a heated war going on between two camps of psychology: the behaviorists and the cognitive psychologists.

Behavioral psychology approached emotions and thoughts as window dressing and maintained the belief that the major driving force within people is their responses to rewards and punishments from the world around them. For example, if you give someone a chocolate cookie every time they go running, they'll want to go running more because they will associate it with the reward of chocolate chip cookies. Never mind that they won't lose weight that way!

On the other hand, cognitive psychology focused on the importance of thoughts and emotions in the way that a person lives from day to day. For example, if someone is trying to lose weight, cognitive psychologists believe he needs to change the way he thinks about food and exercise, learning to appreciate healthy foods and learning to think positively about exercising.

In the middle of the 20th century, behaviorists ruled the field of psychology. Thoughts? Feelings? Most psychologists didn't put much stock in those!

But Richard Lazarus stood up for thoughts and feelings. He studied people's stress levels and said that events are not good or bad, but the way we think about them is positive or negative, and therefore has an impact on our stress levels. For example, say that you are late to work and the person in line in front of you at the coffee shop is taking forever to order what he wants.

The fact that the person is taking that long isn't good or bad by itself. But you believe that it's a negative experience because it's going to make you late to work, which makes you feel stressed out.

On the other hand, you could look at that situation and say to yourself, 'So what if I'm late? This is actually good because it's giving me a few extra minutes this morning to catch my breath before going into the office.' You think of it as a positive experience, and therefore you don't feel stressed out.

Lazarus's theory is called the appraisal theory of stress, or the transactional theory of stress. You can remember this because the way a person appraises the situation affects how they feel about it. According to this theory, there are two things that a person thinks when they are faced with a situation. These are called the primary appraisal and the secondary appraisal.

Primary Appraisal

Okay, let's go back to that coffee shop on a hectic morning. You're standing in line, already a little late to work, and the person in front of you is hemming and hawing about his drink order. He orders one thing and then changes his mind and orders another thing. Then he asks a complicated question about one of the items on the menu. Hearing me talk about it, you might already feel stressed out. But before you felt stressed, according to Lazarus, you first appraised the situation.

Your primary appraisal answers the questions: 'What does this situation mean?' and 'How can it affect me?' It is the primary appraisal because it is about the situation itself, not about your feelings.

So let's start with the first question, 'What does this situation mean?' If you're standing in line and the person in front of you is taking a long time to order, it means that you will be extra late to work.

The next question on your primary appraisal is: 'How can it affect me?' On one hand, you might believe that your boss will yell at you for being late. On the other hand, you might believe that being forced to stand in line for a few more minutes gives you the option of relaxing more before going into the office.

There are three possible appraisals that can occur during the primary appraisal: you could see the situation as neutral and not important, positive and challenging you to grow, or negative and stressful.

Let's look at another example. Say that you walk into your class on Monday morning, and your teacher tells you that there's a surprise quiz that you haven't studied for.

What does this situation mean? It might mean that you fail the quiz or that you just barely squeak by with a passing grade. How can it affect you? You might fail out of school, not get into college, and end up homeless.

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